LOS ANGELES -- To be the champion you have to beat the champion.
Right now, the Los Angeles Clippers can't beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.
For the third time this season, and the second time at Staples Center, the Thunder beat the Clippers to keep them at arm's length in the Western Conference.
With an opportunity to leap frog ahead of the Thunder into second place in the standings, the Clippers could not overcome a sluggish beginning in a 108-104 loss to the Thunder at sold out Staples Center on Sunday.
Instead of moving ahead of the Thunder, the Clippers remain in third place in the conference, 1.5 games behind the Thunder.
Kevin Durant scored 35 points and Russell Westbrook added 29, including a 17-foot shot that put the Thunder up 106-102 with 26.8 seconds remaining.
Chris Paul had 26 points and led a furious Clippers comeback in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't enough.
Blake Griffin added 20 points before fouling out late in the game, and Jamal Crawford also had 20.
A slow start buried the Clippers in a 19-point hole in the first half, as Paul and his teammates struggled to get going.
The Thunder, meantime, had no such problems as Durant scored 20 first-half points and Westbrook added 17 as Oklahoma City led 54-41 at the half.
The Clippers' struggles continued in the third quarter, at least early on, as the Thunder rolled to a 19-point lead before the Clippers began mounting a comeback.
With Paul and Griffin finally getting untracked in the third, the Clippers closed to within 82-73 heading to the forth, a surge that continued in the final period as the Clippers got the lead down to two points.
But each time they got close, the Thunder had an answer, including Westbrook's steal and dunk with just over three minutes remaining to put Oklahoma City up 97-90.
Matt Barnes responded with a three-pointer, but the Thunder came right back with a Serge Ibaka dunk to go back up 99-93.
Once again Barnes hit a three to make it 99-96 with 1:52 remaining, followed by a flagrant foul on Ibaka when he hit Griffin in the groin area.
The officials looked at the play and opted against throwing Ibaka out, but the flagrant stood and Griffin made one of two free throws to cut it to 99-97 with the Clippers maintaining possession of the ball.
Crawford then hit a three to put the Clippers up 100-99 with 1:29 left.
It ended up as a seven-point Clippers possession that gve them the lead.
But Westbrook came right back, charging the lane for an easy bucket to put the Thunder up 101-100. Soon after, Ibaka scored over Griffin - fouling him out in the process. After hitting the free throw the Thunder led 104-100.
Ibaka added 16 points for the Thunder.